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A Foreign Policy More Supple (theindianexpress)



India’s brilliant ex-foreign secretary and a scion of great Indian statesmen, Shivshankar Menon, in his book ‘Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy’ (2016) begins by positing his thesis:

“All governments claim eternal consistency and success. Some even claim omniscience, and yet the essence of governance is choice. Choice involves uncertainty, risk, and immediacy; those who must make the choices operate in the contemporary fog that envelops events rather than from the certainty and clarity that come with time, distance, and reflection. Nowhere is this more true than in foreign policy decision-making. Diplomacy offers choices, and those choices must be negotiated with other sovereign actors not subject to a particular state’s customs, laws, and restraints.”

The above piece of wisdom can serve as advice to both India and Pakistan. The central idea is that a state has more room for manoeuvre if it keeps its options open, or more importantly, if it contrives to have more choices of action than just one or two. If you focus more on the need of freedom of action, you arrive at the idea of “flexibility” of response as the state faces a self-created crisis or a crisis imposed by another state. Only when the thinking of the state has room for suppleness will it have more choices or options for action.

Human history doesn’t help people like Menon. It’s a record of heroic deeds, talks of people who “stood their ground”, “who stuck to their principles”. History records the deeds of the warrior, not the statesman who avoided war by bending the principle of state sovereignty. It talks of heroes who isolated themselves on grounds of virtue — read principle, ideology, honour and other transfixing concepts — and didn’t care for the “choice” of survival. Menon shuns the populism of warlike response when he tells us that after 26/11, or the Mumbai attack of 2008, it wouldn’t have served India to retaliate by destroying Muridke near Lahore. He favoured the policy of flexibility of response. The result is the mounting pressure of global isolation on Pakistan in 2016.

States are deceived by the idea of sovereignty which was the bedrock of the League of Nations after the First World War and is the central myth of the United Nations today. Sovereignty curtails choices of action of the state. Among individuals, it is the sense of honour which takes us back to Greek tragedy and the “heroic isolation” of the man who dies in the end is remembered forever. The man who lives by flexibility is not the kind of man who could be deified by history. He is not the warrior but the merchant who avoids conflict at all cost. Reason: He has assets to guard. In the case of states, it is the economy which dictates flexibility.

If the state is big relative to its neighbouring states, it will tend to be inflexible in the region. If it is weak it will prefer more choices of action than honour which imposes the duty of going to war. The big state with a large economy and a powerful army will be relaxed because of its confidence in coercion. The smaller the state the more intense its nationalism. If it is relatively small, as Pakistan is vis-a-vis India, it will be tempted to become a desperately warrior state with a revisionist nationalism, that is, if it has a claim on some territory occupied by the big neighbour.

Pakistani nationalism is intense and easily diagnosed; India’s is ill-defined and more reactive than active. Pakistani textbooks easily link nationalism to “enemy” India. Because India is undefeatable owing to its sheer size, Pakistan had the option of being flexible towards “hegemon” India. But it relied on madcap theories about India’s internal un-viability to adopt the irreducible option of righteous war. Confronted by China, a smaller-in-size India wisely opted for flexibility and survival. Pakistan hurt itself by repeatedly going to war with India and not winning.

Menon is right in not having “chosen” to bomb Muridke in 2008 because of the nature of the warrior state of Pakistani. An attack on Muridke would have brought the region close to nuclear holocaust whose “imminence” — not actual war — would have hurt India’s economy. In the end, Pakistan has hurt itself more by retaining an intense form of revisionist nationalism requiring constant crossborder irredentism. To maintain this low intellectual posture, it has settled for a behind-the-scenes rule by the army. The cost is global isolation and internal disorder.

Tragically, democracy is rejected in the process as the world reposes little trust in the elected governments wanting to “normalise” — read adopt the “choice” of flexible posture — with India.

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